ROME — Italy’s top military brass is hopeful that Poland, and possibly Japan, will step in to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. after it abandoned plans to produce a next-generation air and missile defense system with Rome and Berlin.

The U.S. plans to continue funding the Medium Extended Air Defense System (Meads) through fiscal 2013, but its support will end with the completion of development of the ambitious project in fiscal 2014. Washington has contributed 58% of the funding, with Germany providing 25% and the remaining 17% coming from Italy.

The U.S. supported the completion of development, but was unable to move into production as the economic downturn pinched defense spending. The U.S. Army ultimately chose upgrading its legacy Patriot system over buying Meads.

This has left Berlin and Rome without a partner for producing the system. Lt. Gen. Claudio Debertolis, secretary general of defense and national armaments director for Italy, told Aviation Week May 8 that Poland is “very interested” in joining the Meads partnership.

“Two international customers are interested, and have started discussions with us about getting involved in development and production,” says Rick Edwards, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Missiles & Fire Control, which is leading development of Meads. “They are interested in the 360-degree performance of Meads and industrial participation, and the ‘noble’ work share that would result from getting involved at the front end,” he says, indicating that one of the nations is Poland.

Though Italy’s political leadership has implemented austerity plans and cut defense spending, Debertolis says he wants to buy at least one Meads battery for the defense of Rome. Poland, he says, is also interested in purchasing the entire system.

Because Italy cannot afford a layered missile defense system like Washington, its armed forces see Meads as the solution it can afford with the most capability, said Brig. Gen. Alberto Rosso, logistics branch chief for the Italian air force, also interviewed by Aviation Week. The military here cannot afford to invest in both Meads and an upper-tier system such as the U.S. Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system or Israel’s Arrow.

If the Meads team cannot find a new partner, defense officials here hope to at least use some of the hardware produced during the development phase for a “minimum engagement capability.”

Through Meads, the Lockheed-led team has developed “plug-and-play” systems including a 360-deg. radar, new launcher, upgraded PAC-3 missile interceptor and command-and-control element. Meads was designed to interoperate with legacy missile defense systems such as the Patriot and be quickly deployable.

Late this year, Meads is slated to counter its first theater ballistic missile target, its most taxing test to date, in a development graduation exercise. The system last year successfully destroyed an MQM-107 air-breathing target after the PAC-3 Missile Segment Enhancement (MSE) interceptor performed a 180-deg. maneuver for a so-called over-the-shoulder kill.

“We will do another full-up system demonstration this fall,” Edwards says. This will complete the so-called “proof of concept” phase. “We could go into low-rate initial production pretty quickly, depending on the customer,” he says, noting the remaining work involves formal qualification of all system elements except the PAC-3 MSE, which is already qualified and entering production.

Debertolis and Rosso did not say when Poland or Japan may sign up. However, it is likely that a successful test at year’s end will generate more support for the program.